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Some Elements of a Cultural Theory

of Social Change
Dar
o Montero

social struggles, say, from the early XIX century onwards


AbstractThe present paper attempts to lay the foundations shows the crucial role social movements have played in
of a cultural approach for the study of social change, in which challenging the state in a more or less radical way with more
change is understood as a result of a conflict of or less revolutionary consequences. They are key agents of
self-interpretations between different groups or spheres in a
society. This cultural approach seems to be particularly useful
change.
in explaining the emergence of social movements, which always The present article argues for a new theoretical and
presuppose a clash of views, say, between the aspirations of the methodological approach for the study of social change, one
people and the official doctrine of the state, just to mention the which understands change as the result of conflicting
most typical case. The concepts and methodological principles common self-interpretations and social imaginaries, such as
offered here owe a great debt to the work of the Canadian those we find historically materialized in the tensions
philosopher Charles Taylor although he never clearly spelled
out a meta-theory on change. The paper will then try to show in
between citizens aspirations and the official ideology of the
what would consist such a Taylorian theory of social change, government in power, leading to all sorts of political
and this we do not only by reconstructing Taylors views on this movements. My claim is that existing theories of social
issue, but also through a critical examination of range of key change, as we find them in sociology and other social
assumptions found both in mainstream social science and, more disciplines, fall short of a satisfactory explanation of change
specifically, in existing theories of social change. when it comes to understand the rise and transformation of
collective identities; that in one way or another, the
assumptions on which these theories rely necessarily lead to
Index TermsCultural identities, identity crisis,
self-interpretation, social change, social imaginary, social reductionist or distorted accounts of what I term here cultural
movements, Charles Taylor change. In what follows, I attempt at a critical examination of
some of these assumptions, from which I hope to draw the
basic principles for a more appropriate conceptualization of
I. INTRODUCTION change.
Western societies operate on the basis of a concrete set of
self-understandings and social imaginaries which make
possible their democratic practices, market exchanges, as II. SOCIAL SCIENCE TODAY: THE SPECTER OF ATOMISM
well as the rest of their social institutions and collective ways It is today widely acknowledged within the various social
of doing. These common self-interpretations are so to speak science disciplines that no social reality can be properly
embodied in the structure of these societies. But they can be studied in abstraction from its constitutive
then articulated thus becoming political doctrines, as we find self-interpretations [1]-[2]. This is the conviction behind
them laid down in the constitution of a country. A particular what has come to be known as interpretive social science, a
political culture, that is, a language and a set of practices general mental pattern for guiding research, which has been
defining personhood and societal order, finds its expression endorsed by such influential and diverse authors as Jrgen
in the constitutional principles that a nation gives to itself. Habermas, Anthony Giddens, and Michael Walzer, among
But there are also other places to look at. Common others. According to this perspective, changes taking place in
self-understandings appear as well under the form of social social practices, institutions or identities always imply a
movements of whatever kind. These movements are social transformation in their constitutive self-interpretations, even
in the sense that all of their members share a common in those cases where these transformations are triggered by
(political) identity, which in turn makes possible their external (non-interpretive) factors such as ecological
constitution into a collective agent. Some of these groups fail catastrophes, wars, demographic changes or the introduction
to articulate a coherent political agenda, but a common of a new technology in a given society. These kinds of
understanding must exist (as opposed to mere convergence of external factors can certainly bring about deep structural
interests) in order for us to speak of social movements at all. changes but its effects will be mediated in every case by
In Western societies, the history of modern political and modifications of the self-interpretations operating in those
social structures. The point is that despite this emphasis given
to interpretation and meaning, the way social research is
Manuscript received November 25, 2011; revised December 31, 2011. carried out today exhibits the adherence to an unhealthy
D. Montero is with the University of Jena, Germany. He is a Doctoral
Fellow at the Jena Graduate School Human Behavior in Social and individualistic credo: that of atomism and its correspondent
Economic Change (GSBC), Carl-Zeiss-Strae 3, 07743 Jena, Germany. Tel. reliance on methodological individualism. The atomistic
+49 3641 930435, Fax +49 3641 943202, email: dictum is to be found even in disciplines that concern
dario.montero@uni-jena.de).
themselves with collective phenomena, as is the case with As meaning events, human thoughts and actions are
sociology, political science, and social psychology. Atomism necessarily embedded in a society, which should be seen in
is without doubt one of the founding assumptions of the turn as the locus of a given linguistic and cultural community.
social sciences, a powerful set of ontological views and There can be no individual action without the context of a
methodological prescriptions that still today dominates the society so understood. And since methodological
way social inquiry is conducted. Perhaps this is the right individualism ignores the latter (in its attempt to decompose
place to start our analysis. macro structures into individual acts) it cannot deliver a
The problem with the mainstream of social inquiry is that satisfactory explanation of social life; it will always provide a
while accounting for beliefs and values, considers them as a partial or reductionist picture of it.
mere subjective events taking place in the minds of
individuals. What considerations lead into this atomistic view?
And, what is wrong with it (if anything)? This influential III. MOVING BEYOND ATOMISM: INTER-SUBJECTIVE
methodological principle draws, as Charles Taylor would MEANINGS
argue, on the atomism that came with the development of The previous considerations lead to the idea that society is
modern natural science and which was introduced by Hobbes an undecomposable unit of meaning. Now, what does it mean
into the sciences of man [3]. The whole must be understood for a social scientist to approach society as a whole, i.e. in a
in terms of the parts that compose it, and since societies are holistic fashion?
made up of individuals, social structures and conditions An atomist political scientist might be studying, for
should be accounted for in terms of the properties of these example, the observed correlation between certain
individuals. At first look the idea of atomism appears as a ideological beliefs and certain voting practices within a given
most natural and obvious stand point, for isnt the individual society or subgroup of it. In other words, he is interested in
human being the only one who can be said to think and act? It the relation between some subjective meanings and some
is precisely from the interaction of individuals so goes the objective institutional practice. We are confronting here a set
argument that society emerges with its practices, norms, of ontological and methodological assumptions that tell us
traditions, etc. Under this impression, one is tempted to that beliefs, attitudes, and values will always be those of a
discard any kind of holistic approach that seeks in a particular individual or subject. What is forever out of
supra-individual level the key terms for an explanation of consideration in this view is what Taylor calls
society. inter-subjective meanings, something like objective
The crucial argument against atomism passes through an meanings [4].
examination of the peculiar nature of what Taylor calls But if the arguments developed in this paper are right, then
meaning events. The core of the argument is already found what an atomist calls subjective meanings are not real
in Wittgenstein. The point of departure is the consideration meaning events in the sense defined above, precisely because
that social practices, norms, traditions and the like require they are defined in isolation from the socio-cultural context
human beings capable of thought something which the in which they arise. As soon as we see the impossibility of
methodological individualist would instantly agree to. But this, we are drawn to search for the correspondent
what is the nature of these thoughts? In examining language, background of meanings as the only way to understand the
Wittgenstein was able to show that any linguistic item (a action/practice under study. We seek to identify the
word or concept, a sentence or judgment) has a meaning only historically and geographically bounded set of
in virtue of an already existing language, with which this inter-subjective meanings a specific culture within which
particular item is internally connected and against which a particular actions acquire a value that otherwise would not
simple word acquires a definite signification. Any instance of have. Inter-subjective meanings are not only available in the
rule-governed human behavior, such as a game, moves in a (articulate) form of the political constitution of a state or
domain of validity where the part (an action) is determined other legal documents, but are operative in all its different
by the place that it occupies within the whole (a language, a institutions and practices; they are, so to speak, embodied in
set of rules). Taylor applies this insight to meaningful human the structure of a society. Social movements are just another
behavior in general. Thoughts exist as it were in the concrete example of embodied collective self-understandings.
dimension of meaning and require a background of available And it is only from the basis of an abstract or disembodied
meanings in order to be the thoughts that they are [3]. The conception of meaning that atomism can appear as a
example given by Taylor is the hypothetic case where a convincing theory. Concrete or embodied meaning has, on
Neolithic man praises his lover of being sophisticated in the the contrary, always a social and objective dimension. The
way she behaves. But if its true what we know now of the meanings and norms implicit in these practices are not just in
Neolithic farmers in upper Syria, such a romantic scene could the minds of the actors but are out there in the practices
have never taken place. The available culture and language in themselves, practices which cannot be conceived as a set of
those ancient times did not possess anything resembling the individual actions, but which are essentially modes of social
idea of sophistication and therefore such a talk makes no relation, of mutual action [4]. Inter-subjective meanings in
sense within this particular cultural community. Meaning this sense are not the same thing as consensus, for the simple
events are according to Taylor those which can only be reason that the latter presupposes the former. In order to
intelligible against a meaning background, a language. And agree or disagree on something, both parties need first to
this is what ultimately rules out methodological understand what they are discussing about, what is the issue
individualism. at stake: they first need to share a web of inter-subjective
understandings, norms, values, and the like. idealist nor as materialist we are here faced rather with a
But now the limits of mainstream social sciences should be multi-level theory of change. Thus, in accounting for the rise
visible. Because of the prevalence of an atomist of the economy as a crucial feature of our modern world,
methodological dictum known as methodological Taylor points to at least three underlying types of historical
individualism, social scientists in the great majority of the changes: economic ones (the increasing number of business
cases cannot offer any satisfactory account of classes, merchants, and later manufacturers in Holland and
inter-subjective meanings. Cultural identities so understood England); political (the new social order requiring ordered
and their processes of transformation over time stay forever and disciplined economic life for the masses, in some parts of
out of reach. Europe and in North-America); and purely spiritual changes
(the rejection of the Catholic idea of higher vocations that led
to the Calvinist sanctification of ordinary life of production
IV. TOWARDS A HOLISTIC CONCEPTION OF SOCIAL CHANGE and reproduction). But despite Taylors acknowledgement of
The project for holistic conceptualization of social and multiple factors operating behind the rise of modernity, he is
cultural change is not based on the conviction that not explicit in accounting for the dynamics of social change
atomistic-empirical social sciences, as we know them today, in general. How does change start?
are globally wrong. The problem only begins when this
approach is claimed to explain the whole of society. But there
are certain aspects of it individual and collective identities, V. THE DYNAMICS OF CULTURAL CHANGE
cultural and social transformation processesthat are almost An important complement to Taylors reflections may be
impossible to be made sense of from the individualistic found in Hartmut Rosas formal theory of social change [6].
perspective. Building on Taylor and other authors, he sees change as
A useful concept to approach holistically the phenomenon occurring between four mutually interdependent levels of
of change is that of social imaginary, recently used by self-interpretation. Michael Walzer had already identified
Taylor to characterize the ways people imagine their social three possible locations of the significant interpretations of a
existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on society, namely, (1) explicit self-interpretations in the form
between them and their fellows, the expectations that are of law documents, literature, and theories, (2) institutions and
normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images social practices, and (3) the thoughts and beliefs people have
that underlie these expectations the social imaginary is that [7]-[8]. To these three, Rosa adds a fourth locus, namely, (4)
common understanding that makes possible common the body-practices, habits, and feelings of individuals. There
practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy [5]. is here a relation of interdependence and well as of partial
Taylors main thesis is that our modern Western world is the autonomy between these four levels of meaning, where (1)
result of a series of transformations of the social imaginary of and (3) refer to explicit or reflective forms of
pre-modern Europe and North America. Social change is thus self-interpretations, and (2) and (4) go for implicit or
inextricably linked to a mutation of the social imaginary. Of embodied meanings. The main insight behind this theory is
course this takes time. Its a long process where new that institutions and theories, or implicit and explicit
practices (or modifications of old ones) slowly or self-understandings, can easily get into conflict and mutual
disruptively develop among certain groups of the population, tensions that put pressure for change on one or both of them
but it also can mean that these developments in turn lead to [6]. In other words, this formalist theory explains the
the constitution of new social imaginaries. The three forms of dynamics of social change using a criterion of consistency. It
social self-understandings that characterize modernity (as a avoids the mistake of advocating for a substantive
consequence of the transformations of the social imaginary) mono-causal explanation, as we find in classical theories of
are, according to Taylor, the economy, the public sphere, and social change, and focuses only in the possible tensions or
the practices of democratic self-rule. We find here a nice discrepancies that arise between any of the different spheres.
framework for the identification and description of Of course, the same relationship holds for the individual level,
inter-subjective meanings in order to understand the rise and (3) and (4), but one should not forget as we showed in the
transformation of collective identities. previous sections that individual self-interpretations are
The social imaginary is something boarder and deeper than always embedded in a social context, or as Taylor puts it
a political idea, a social theory, is more than a mere common elsewhere in a web of interlocution [9].
understanding. It designates the way (a large group of) Following the same intuition, I want to argue that the
ordinary people imagine their social surroundings, which causes of change are to be found at the level of a societys
allows them to make sense of the practices they posses. The self-interpretations and the degree of discrepancy or
social imaginary is the key element in a cultural theory of coherence among them in opposition to traditional
social change. A new idea or theory can only make its way approaches which view the causes of change in interests and
into history in that the people (or its active segments) share a inequalities (say, in a neo-Marxist line of thought) or the
social imaginary that includes ways of realizing the new introduction of new technologies into a society (as some
theory [5]. exogenous accounts of change would have it). Societal
Now what changes motivated the rise of the modern social self-interpretations are more or less coherent systems of
imaginary? Although the analysis undertaken by Taylor does beliefs whose contents cannot be simply deduced from the
not claim to provide a clearly cut causal explanation of it, he structure of the societal system in which they occur and from
does make clear that his project can neither be classified as the position of the actor within it. (This autonomy and
inherent power of moral ideals is an issue I will try to intrinsic type of change) issues from tensions to be found
elaborate below). within the modern repertoire.1 The public sphere allows for
There is a threefold meaning attached to the notion of a the formation of independent views, eventually becoming a
self-interpretation of decisive importance: it is an collective self-interpretation, a new political aspiration,
interpretation/definition i) about the self/subject concerned, grasping the collective imaginary, which in turn may lead to
ii) constitutive of the self (in the sense that it shapes his/her challenging the political ideology of the government. The
identity), but more importantly, the interpretation here more the perceived distance between citizen aspirations and
involved is one that is iii) provided by the self. In other words, official politics, the greater becomes the probability for the
a cultural explanation of change in our sense is not based on a emergence of social movements and social changes.
third person approach, on exterior factors accounting for
individual/collective change as we find for example in the
resource mobilization theory [10]-[11] or, in a different way, VI. A NOTE ON METHOD
in the political process model [12] when it comes to Before proceeding with the analysis, a brief reflection on
explaining the emergence of social movements. We are method is in order. It should be clear at this point that the
primarily interested in self understandings, expectations, and whole project of a cultural theory of change has a strong
values of the people concerned; we are interested in how historical bent. To understand a political crisis means first of
people imagine their social life. This is why we think that the all to understand the historical context in which that
concept of social imaginary introduced in the previous phenomenon arose; there can be no apriori answers, as we
section plays a decisive role in any explanation of find them, for instance, in functionalist accounts of change.
socio-political change. For example, one cannot make sense of the current waves of
Let me briefly introduce the basic insight behind this social movements in Chile without a detailed study of the
approach by reference to the apparition of social movements constitutional and political history of this country. Such a
in general. To this end, we need first to distinguish between study would reveal that Chile is a country especially prone to
two kinds of cultural change. In the strong sense, a cultural develop crises of legitimacy due to the coexistence of two
change means a radical transformation of the way a society is markedly different democratic ideals shaping its political
conceived as a whole, the emergence of a new horizon of imaginary: one republican (experiencing various phases
values, norms and practices. A change of this magnitude can since the independence times), the other (neo) liberal [13].
only occur when the background understanding on which a The 2011 student protests in particular are to be understood
society is based suffers a complete modification. This is the as the return of a politics inspired by (a new interpretation of)
interpretation of Charles Taylor in relation to the emergence republican ideals in reaction to three decades of
of what he calls the modern identity, a whole new set of market-oriented policies and the privatization of the
self-understandings at the basis of modern western societies education system.2
[9]. The point is here that modernity cannot simply be For this sort of research, a wide range of qualitative tools
explained by the decline of religious, metaphysical, seem especially suited. Following Foucaults famous
communitarian beliefs or explicit doctrines; the change genealogical style of investigations, a method usually
involved here affects rather the main assumptions, the utilized for historical reconstructions of the kind we just
underlying convictions against which those beliefs make the mentioned is the one generally known as Critical Discourse
sense they have: a pre-modern background understanding Analysis (CDA), which aims to show how ideas, discourses
was progressively replaced by a brand new vision on or practices came into being, and how they shape and limit
personhood, society, nature, the good, and time. what people do now. In addition to this, content and thematic
But there is a second kind of cultural change, one that analyses of the political constitution and other legal
arises from the intrinsic contradictions that characterize documents of a country permit to elucidate the character of
modern societies. In the previously quoted book entitled dominant ideologies and doctrines. All these methodological
Modern Social Imaginaries, Taylor argues that modern tools are helpful in uncovering the tensions between
society is rooted fundamentally on the ideals and realities of self-interpretation, which are always at the basis of these
democratic self-rule and market exchange, but affirms that crises as we have suggested.
the modern culture also permits the creation of a new space Despite the emphasis given to self-interpretations, that is,
where individuals can come together for debating and to the particular historical circumstances of a crisis/change in
exchanging ideas: the public sphere. Now, it is in this public the words of the people themselves, our approach does not
sphere I arguewhere social movements can emerge, follow a simple inductive methodology, in the spirit of the so
movements which are not only constituted independently called grounded theory (at least in a vulgar variant). This is a
from the state but usually define their agendas in opposition crucial difference. The aim is not so much to develop a
to the latter. This is a clear example of the inherent tension theoretical construct of the phenomenon being investigated
that characterizes modern societies, which would lead sooner
or later following the logic we are presenting hereto
internal social changes. And this is the kind of change we are
1
I recognize that the distinction between foundational and intrinsic
change is problematic, and I still do not have a solution to this problem.
primarily interested in. Hartmut Rosa, for example, argues that change in general can be explained
If the first kind of change (lets call it foundational) was by tensions occurring between any of his four levels of self-interpretation;
defined by the emergence of a new background or repertory in this view, all change is intrinsic change.
2
The author is presently conducting this study case as part of his PhD
of possibilities, the second type of transformation (an thesis.
that is faithful to the actual lived experience of the people Now, when we try to explain the rise of social movements
being studied, but rather exploring cases to see whether our (or any phenomenon involving social change) this
theory helps us understand the object of inquiry. The cultural interpretive question alone does not suffice. In these cases,
researcher is neither interested in testing a particular we also want to know which were the precipitating
prediction stemming from an existing theory (deduction) nor conditions for their coming into being. Without discarding
does he intend to produce a construct out of empirical data available theories that provide an account of these
(induction) but tries rather to find the best fit between theory movements in terms of structural conditions and
and data (abduction). In recent years, David Hiles [14] has opportunities, I propose to see their emergence as a result of a
developed a useful categorization of these three different clash of socio-political self-understandings. Political
logics of inquiry, calling them respectively theory-driven, opportunities and resources, the existence of grass-root
data-driven and explanation-driven, the last one being the networks (among other mobilizing structures), and the
type of inquiry we are interested in. apparition of charismatic figures, all these factors do in fact
But it is a phenomenological explanation. What we need help to bring these movements about, but they should be seen
to explain is people living their lives; the terms in which they as facilitating conditions and not as their causes. From the
cannot avoid living them cannot be removed from the cultural perspective, values and ideals, moral and political
explanandum, unless we can propose other terms in which self-understandings play a crucial role in shaping the curse of
they could live them more clairvoyantly [9]. The best the events.3
account principle implicit here reposes ultimately in a It is not a simplistic idealist position, however. In order for
criterion of plausibility; it is a hermeneutical exercise that a moral ideal to have inherent power in transforming reality,
bears always the character of a provisional explanation, an it must be an imagined ideal, not a mere theory. According to
explanation can later be challenged, corrected, improved by a the embodied conception of meaning that we subscribe to
later interpretation. At any given moment, the best in the tradition of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein,
interpretation possible of a phenomenon is that which and Michael Polanyi there is an inextricable connection
succeeds in making sense of the phenomenon in question to a between ideas (theories) on the one hand, and practices and
degree that alternative accounts do not achieve. In this institutions on the other, where the former cannot be
interpretive enterprise many different theories could, indeed conceived without the latter. In a sense, ideas can be even
should be utilized in order to enhance our understanding of seen as secondary to practices, in that they articulate or make
the reality under study. Theory is always in the service of explicit what was always already present in the ways people
understanding reality, and never an end in itself. Usually the act within society, in the existing practices. This dimension
sensible strategy that follows the researcher in sticking to his of implicit or inarticulate meaning is what we identified
third type of inquiry is the selection of a case study, in which above as the background understanding of a human
the phenomenon can be intensely studied. community. The complex relation ideas/practices and its
consequences for the study of social change in general and
political change in particular has been aptly summarized by
VII. THE DRIVING FORCE OF MORAL IDEALS Taylor with his distinction of two different (ideal typical)
In contrast to a range of theories of change from Marx to paths in which this can occur:
Daniel Bell that tend to understand values and ideals as On the one hand, a theory may inspire a new kind of
co-products of socio-economic developments, this cultural activity with new practices, and in this way form the
perspective recognizes the inherent power of values and imaginary of whatever groups adopt these practices. The first
moral ideals and their historical role in the shaping of our Puritan churches formed around the idea of a covenant
social world, most famously articulated by Max Weber in his provide examples of this. A new ecclesial structure flowed
account of the protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism, a from a theological innovation; this becomes part of the story
line of thought that has somehow survive until today, for of political change, because the civil structures themselves
example, in the work of the political scientist Samuel were influenced in certain American colonies by the ways
Huntington and the psychological theorist David C. churches were governed, as with Conneticut
McClelland. The critique is here directed against reductive Congregationalism, where only the converted enjoyed full
accounts of change which seem to attribute little or no causal citizenship.
role to moral ideals. Just to pick the aforementioned example:
why is it that the Calvinist idea of sanctification of ordinary 3
Within social psychology, there are approaches to social movements,
life took grasp of the collective imaginary of the people in such as the one by David Snow and various of his colleagues, which do take
early modern Europe? What is the ides-force that this new into account the crucial role played by ideas and sentiments for explaining
collective action, but these focus rather narrowly on conscious strategic
vision of the good life contained? This interpretive question
efforts to shape common self-understandings. There are two very important
occupies a central place in a cultural approach to change. As issue that unfortunately I cannot elaborate further here, but that at least
Taylor rightly observes, all historiography (and social deserved being named: a) these cognitivistic approaches do not concede
science as well) relies on a (largely implicit) understanding of enough importance to the background understandings that people have, the
richer dimension of implicit meaning central to our cultural theory, and b)
human motivation: how people respond, what they generally they remain committed to a impoverished behavioral ontology that cannot
aspire to, the relative importance of given ends and the like. capture the dialogical conception of the self we adhere here. This social
This is the truth behind Webers celebrated affirmation that psychological line of thought can be traced back to G. H. Mead. (For a
detailed discussion on this last point, see: Ch. Taylor, The Dialogical Self, in:
any explanation in sociology has to be adequate as to The Interpretive Turn Philosophy, Science, Culture, Eds. D. R. Hiley et al.,
meaning. [9]. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991)
Or else the change in the social imaginary comes with a of self-interpretation conveys the idea of a first-person
reinterpretation of a practice that already existed in the old description; that the task of the researcher is to understand
dispensation. Older forms of legitimacy are colonized, as it social life from the perspective of the social agents
were, with a new understanding of order, and then themselves. It was further argued that these
transformed, in certain cases, without a clear break. [5]. self-interpretations are never the possession of atomistic
As we see, in both cases change happens through a individuals but they exist in the form of socially shared
transformation of the social imaginary of the people involved. common understandings, which can only be properly
And here lays the difference with vulgar idealistic positions. addressed and studied as such with the help of a holistic
For all that has been said, the concept of self-interpretation approach. Now, behind this ideal of social inquiry there is a
we are using throughout here should be understood in a particular conception of culture, one that is closely associated
broader and deeper sense: not as mere ideas but as modes with the meaning this word has in anthropology. In the
of social relation among agents. context of the discussion of atomism, culture was generally
Let us examine briefly an example to get a taste of how identified as a historically and geographically bounded set of
moral ideals and values can mobilize people and modify inter-subjective meanings within which particular actions
social and political conditions. In the 1960s a large cultural acquire a value that otherwise would not have. More
change started taking place in our Western civilization, specifically, culture can be viewed as a particular language
particularly in Central Europe and North America. What was and a set of practices, including visions of the good life,
involved in this mutation, whose locus was the young, was society, person, among other defining aspects of any human
that certain of the fundamental reference points for the community. In this anthropological sense, cultures can be
formation of identity in our civilization [began] being seen as original and unique world-views or broad value
challenged [15]; in particular, 1) the model of maturity, horizons, which are mutually incommensurable. And it is
where the adult man determines out of himself his values and precisely this cultural pluralism, the irreducibility of
life goals, as opposed to an external source of authority. This cultures, what our cultural approach sets itself to capture.
ideal of a self-defining subject based on individual freedom This culturalist stance has huge consequences for the analysis
played then a central role in American culture, as it still does of modern societies and their inherent conflicts and
today. 2) From the point of view of the self-defining transformations.
individual, the surrounding world is consequently seen as a In the culturalist viewpoint, the difference between
set of raw materials for his own (productive) purposes, rather pre-modern (Christian) Europe and modern western
than as a source for forming his own identity; which is in turn secularized societies is as big as the difference we find among
connected with 3) a certain orientation to the future: the past cultures around the globe, say, between India and the USA.
as that to be constantly surpassed. This is a paradigmatic The pluralist stance is opposed to what Taylor calls
example of collective identity crisis, as a crisis in allegiance acultural theories of modernity, a dominant line during the
to this model among young people, especially among last two hundred years, which see the growth of science,
students, which was followed by a complex and interrelated instrumental rationality, negative freedom, democratic
host of social movements. self-rule as universal and neutral changes that any society
How to account for this identity crisis and the emergence could (and inevitably will) undergo, and not as distinctive
of the new social movements and their characteristic agenda features of a particular culture originating in Europe [16]. But
for the advocacy of identity politics? At that time, the rising this distorts. The acultural take on modernity as a universal
generations were already in a position to experience some of phenomenon justifies the imposition of the modern package
the chaotic ecological and social consequences stemming of values, institutions and practices on other cultures,
from the aforementioned model, which gave them a reason to unfitting us to understand the contemporary phenomenon of
challenge it. But one could argue as well that the new multiple modernities. In Taylors view, an acultural theory
generation brought with them a longing for community and a locks us into an ethnocentric prison, condemned to project
new sense for creativity and human feeling, against which the our own forms onto everyone else and blissfully unaware of
dominant model of maturity appears to certain extent as what we are doing [16].
inhuman and unsocial; it cut us off from old sources of Contrary to this, an appropriate understanding of the
identity [15]. Pressing social and ecological problems cultural specificity of North-Atlantic societies permits in turn
(associated to the prevailing social model) as well as a feeling the clear recognition of the specificity of other cultures and
of dissatisfaction with the dominant culture are just two of the particular trajectories they have followed in
reasons among others that help explain an increasing modernizing, for instance, the modernization process that has
divergence between the official institutional order and the taken place among Latin American countries. Here as well
new sensibility of the young generations, which pressed for a social movements have marked an important part of the curse
variety of changes, in legislation, in the formation of new of the twentieth century, following the pattern we have tried
political parties, new social networks and communities, to show (discrepant self-understandings leading to
among others. legitimation crises from which these movements arise) that is
at the basis of this kind of phenomenon. However, the only
way of arriving at an explanation of the political struggles in
VIII. CULTURAL PLURALISM AND CULTURAL CHANGE Latin American countries is by engaging in a concrete
I would like to make explicit one final implication of the investigation of the political history of this continent, with its
cultural approach presented here. It was noted that the notion characteristic mixture of Pre-Columbian, Colonial, and
European enlightenment values. occurring with increasing force everywhere in the world. Far
from intending to provide a detailed theory, the previous
reflections were limited to indicate the direction towards a
IX. CONCLUSION more satisfactory investigation of social change in general
I have been discussing some distinctive elements of a and social movements in particular.
cultural theory of change. It is holistic in that it treats culture
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